In this song, Jay-Z recounts his difficult childhood. He was raised by his single-parent mom Gloria. His father Adnes Reeves, who is now deceased, walked away when Jay was only 12. Left with no father figure to model after, young Shawn Carter turned to the streets of Marcy, delved into drug-peddling, and immersed himself in various clandestine street activities. He soon capitalized on his hustle and became a fledging street rapper known as "Jazzy" in his neighborhood. He later modified the name to Jay-Z.
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The song's hook interpolates a verse from Meli'sa Morgan's 1986 offering "Fool's Paradise." The R&B singer/songwriter herself appears on the remix. Morgan recalled to Billboard magazine in 2016 how the then little known MC reached out to her. "When I got the call, [his team] was like, 'Jay Z wants you to come in and sing for the remix' and I was like, 'Who is Jay Z?'"
"It was fresh, it was new and he was trying all kinds of new things."
Jay-Z explained the song's meaning during a NPR interview: "It sounds like I'm saying, you can't knock my hustle," he said. "But what – who I was talking to was the guys on the street because rap was my hustle and like, at the time street – the streets was my job."